In This Episode:
Is Anxiety "normal"?
Does that mean there is nothing you can do? No.
Links To Things I Talk About:
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This is Your Anxiety Toolkit - Episode 313.
Hello friends. We are talking about what causes anxiety and why it is not your fault. So important. Okay, let’s say it again. Why it is not your fault. I know you’re probably beating yourself up for something related to your anxiety, that you should be handling it better, that there’s something wrong with your brain. I want to really knock this concern, this belief, this thought out if I can, and try to replace it with some information that you can use in the moment to reassure yourself, not in a compulsive way, but just to remind yourself it’s not your fault. Let’s stop beating you up for something that’s not your fault. If you saw something happen on the street and had nothing to do with you, you wouldn’t probably blame yourself or beat yourself up or shame yourself. And I would like you to do the same for your anxiety. Okay?
So, before we do that, let’s talk about the “I did a hard thing.” This is from anonymous. It’s pretty cool, I have to say. Anonymous says:
“I was diagnosed with relationship OCD this year after sharing my doubts and rumination patterns with a therapist. My parents have expressed concerns about a boyfriend I have been with for over a year, and I don’t think these concerns are valid and my therapist doesn’t think they’re concerning either. My parents’ comments still trigger my relationship OCD doubts big time. However, I have opened up to my parents about how I’m considering marrying my boyfriend and have responded to their criticism calmly without getting mad at them. It’s been really hard to establish boundaries, but also be kind. But I feel like I’m on track. I also am trying to see my parents’ criticism of him as a gift, at least I know that I can’t go to them for reassurance and it’s a great exposure opportunity.”
Anonymous, you are literally winning. The reason I am so thrilled, last week we did a whole episode on relationship OCD with Amy Mariaskin, and I really feel like you’re mastering all of those skills that we talked about last week. So, that is just amazing. Congratulations on that hard thing. It’s really, really cool work you’re doing.
And quickly, before we move on, here’s the review of the week. This is from Susan in Plano. They said:
“It’s a life preserver! Kimberley, your podcast has been such a help to me as I pursue recovery from a particularly active and pesky flare-up of OCD. Diagnosed in 2007, I have just this year found an incredible therapist who specializes in anxiety and OCD. Your podcast encourages me to keep doing the hard things. It makes me laugh and assists me in realizing just how much company travels on this road (even when it feels lonely and isolating). I am profoundly grateful for your work, and I have personally recommended this podcast to at least ten people. Thank you so much.”
Susan, thank you so much. You guys, if you’re able to leave a review, of all the gifts you could give me, that would be the most beneficial to me. I love your reviews. Go to wherever you listen to this podcast and leave a review if you can. It does help me to reach more people and gain their trust. So, thank you so much.
All right, let’s do it. What causes anxiety and why it is not your fault. Okay, so let’s first look at what causes anxiety. The first thing to remember here is, anxiety is actually not a problem. And what I mean by that is it is normal and healthy and an important part of our functioning and survival. What we’re talking about here is, normal anxiety has its roots in fear and what it really does is it helps us to respond to dangerous situations. So, if you were there facing some kind of dangerous, stressful situation, a bus was coming your way or your house was on fire, or your car broke down on the highway with tons of cars beating past you, you would naturally get anxiety. And that anxiety would show up to alert you that you must be careful and take care of this somewhat dangerous situation.
When that happens, you’ll notice your heart beating faster, your chest might get tired, you might need to pee, you might need to poop. You might feel like you need to throw up. You might feel an overall irritability or jitteriness. So many different symptoms. You might get dizzy, you might have a headache. So many symptoms of anxiety show up, not because there’s anything wrong with you, but because that is your brain’s way of preparing you for fight, flight, or freeze. It’s very, very important. And so, it is a normal function of the body. However, some of us experience extreme degrees of this and our brain sends this “normal anxiety” out when there’s not danger. Your brain is perceived there to be danger when in fact there isn’t any danger. And this becomes a problem and it becomes a cycle, particularly if we respond to it.
So, what are we talking about when we’re talking about excessive degrees of anxiety, or in the case, we may be an anxiety disorder, which I’ll get to here in a minute, is we understand that problematic degrees of anxiety or high levels of anxiety are caused by genetics, which is your generations above you. It’s hereditary, but it’s also caused by environment. We don’t yet really understand what specifically causes it, but we know so far that it is a combination of genetics and environment.
What that means is, you were probably genetically set up to have anxiety. It’s in your DNA the day you were born, which is why I’m going to emphasize to you that it is not your fault that you have anxiety. A lot of this could be passed down multiple generations. So, you might be thinking, “What? My parents aren’t anxious, my parents aren’t depressed, can’t be my family. Can’t be genetic for me. Must be just something wrong with me innately.” And I’m going to say, no, it could be paternal grandparents, maternal grandparents, or even further up the chain of genetics. Now we also know it could be environmental, it could be what you’ve been exposed to. We know that if you’ve been exposed to multiple stresses throughout your life, you may be more predisposed to anxiety. But we’ll get to that here in a little bit.
The thing to remember as we move through is this going to keep reaffirming to you that it’s not your fault. You never asked for this. In fact, my guess is you’re asked to not have this many, many times. You’ve asked your brain, why are you this way? So, you really didn’t want this, you didn’t ask for it, and you’re doing the best you can with what you have. Meaning, even if it’s environmental, you would make-- some people might go, “Yeah, if I didn’t make this one decision, I wouldn’t have been exposed to this one thing.” We’re all doing the best we can with the information we have. It’s easier to look back with 20/20 vision, but in the moment, we’re all just doing the best we can.
Now, the thing to remember here as we go through is, please don’t get hopeless. Just because it’s environmental and genetic, it doesn’t mean that you are stuck with this problem now and that there’s nothing you can do. I’m going to outline here in a little bit close to the end exactly what you can do to have a toolkit to help you work through this situation that you’ve got this brain that’s responding. So, let’s really focus on that piece at the end. Okay?
So, let’s move on now. What specifically causes anxiety disorders? Now, I’m going to leave you some links here in the show notes. If you want to do more in-depth, I am not going to go into great depth here because it’ll go over your head, most likely it goes over my head completely. They’re using some very scientific words. Unless you have some kind of really great science, you have great knowledge in this area, I’m not going to go into that because I don’t think it’s beneficial to fill your brain with all these words. That doesn’t mean anything. But basically, the National Institute of Health have said that mood and anxiety disorders – I’m actually reading directly from their website here – are characterized by a variety of neuroendocrine, neurotransmitter, and neuroanatomical disruptions. That is what they have said. And what they’re really talking about is a bunch of functions that happen in the brain that can get disrupted, causing us to have a brain that sets off the fire alarm or the danger alarm too often, too many times.
Now, what we also know, and this is actually coming from a Harvard Journal article, what we know is that they considered them to be risk factors for getting anxiety disorders. So, as we talked about above, anxiety is genetic and environmental, but what we do understand is that there are these particular risk factors that may make you more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. Again, not your fault, because we’re set up with this genetically or we’re exposed to these things environmentally. So, let’s go through them just briefly.
Number one is personality. So, this is, again, a genetic thing. People with certain personality types are more likely to have anxiety such as anxiety disorder like OCD, PTSD, panic disorder, generalized anxiety, health anxiety, phobias, and so forth. There are certain personality types or personality factors. We know people who are more hyper-responsible are more likely to have anxiety. People who are perfectionistic are more likely to have anxiety. People who like to have more control tend to have more anxiety because we can’t control much in our lives like most of the people in our lives are. A lot of the times, we can’t control environmental factors. And so, that can create a lot of anxiety.
Another risk factor is if you have another mental health disorder. So, if you have depression, you’re so much more likely to have generalized anxiety or panic disorder. If you have an eating disorder, you’re so much more likely to have OCD, generalized anxiety, phobias. These are really important factors to consider. And again, those disorders are more likely to be genetic as well.
We know and we’ve already discussed, you are much more likely and you have a greater risk if you have a blood relative with an anxiety disorder. They do run in families. We also know that there are some risk factors related to drugs and alcohol. So, misuse or withdrawal of drugs and alcohol can cause anxiety. And this is not even just hardcore drugs. It could be caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, even some medical drugs. So, talk with your doctor about if any of these drugs you’re taking are causing anxiety.
I have had clients report to me that they have several drinks or a couple of drinks every day, and they didn’t really see that to be a problem. Or maybe a little bit of marijuana every day, they didn’t see it to be a problem. But then once they took a break, they realized how much the alcohol and drugs were actually causing their anxiety. Same goes for caffeine. Again, I’m not giving you medical advice here. Please speak with your doctor about these things, but we do know that they are considered risk factors based on science.
Another one, and you know I’ve done episodes on this recently, is stress due to an illness can be a risk factor for having an anxiety disorder. Health conditions can cause significant stress on you and your family and can be something that can also impact your ability to succeed in treatment because you’re managing another illness, which I want to make sure, again, you recognize it is not your fault. You’re doing the best you can at juggling multiple things at the same time.
Another one is stress buildup. A buildup of stress over time can increase your chances of having an anxiety and an anxiety disorder. This could be worry about work, school, finances, children, your medical health. It could be the pandemic. We have a massive increase in mental health issues right now because of the pandemic and the effects of the isolation of the pandemic. Again, please give yourself a break for what you’ve been going through.
And then the last one, again, this is according to a Harvard research review, is trauma. Children who do endure abuse or trauma or witness, this is for adults too, have witnessed traumatic events are at higher risk of developing an anxiety throughout their life. This is true for adults. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge that. It doesn’t mean it’s always caused by trauma. Unfortunately, on social media, particularly Instagram, I feel like everything is caused by trauma these days. And I don’t want to discount that for people who have been through a traumatic event. But please don’t jump to that because then it confuses people who have anxiety and they didn’t have a trauma, and it makes everybody question everything. So, it can be trauma, but we don’t want to over-label that either. And I bring that up just because I do see everything being labeled as trauma these days, and that can be problematic and stigmatizing in and of itself.
Okay. How are we doing, everybody? Are we hanging in? We’re getting through this. I know it’s a bigger, heftier session this time, but I think it’s so important.
Alright, so let’s now talk about what causes anxiety in your brain. Again, we’re not going to go into too much depth here, but I’m going to throw some words at you, and we’re just going to do the best we can.
Again, this is from the National Institute of Health, and they said a primary alteration in brain structure or function or in neurotransmitter signaling may result from environmental experiences or underlying genetic predisposition. Again, what they’re saying is environmental experiences and genetic predisposition can both create alterations in the brain structure or function of your brain. So, we are really getting clear on that. And these alterations increase the risk.
Now, what they’re saying here is abnormalities in a brain neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid are all often inherited. So, don’t worry about that big word. It’s just saying these abnormalities are often inherited and do make us more susceptible to, specifically here they were talking about generalized anxiety, but we do have information about that also being for OCD and panic disorder and so forth as well. Link is in the show notes if you want to read more about this.
They’re also saying life events can trigger these. And what we know is our brain is what we call “neuroplastic.” Meaning, events can change our brain to having these alterations causing anxiety. But if we change our behaviors, we can actually reverse that in your brain. So, this is where we start talking about solutions to the problem. We can reverse the alterations made to our brain, particularly the neurotransmitters that were caused by genetics and environmental, when we change our behaviors.
So, let’s talk about it. If we were to just overview what causes anxiety and panic attacks in general, we could say we’ve clearly outlined as genetics and environmental factors. That is completely out of our control. When we have these environmental factors or genetic predispositions, often, as I talked about, when our brain perceives anxiety, our natural instinct is to run away or do something or fight it. That’s your natural reaction. Anybody would do it. Anybody in your situation would do it. Again, I’m going to reinforce, this is not your fault. But what we do is when we have that faulty system in our brain that sets off an alarm that tells you there’s danger, what we end up doing is a bunch of what we call safety behaviors to try and reduce our discomfort and reduce our anxiety. Safety behaviors such as avoidance, reassurance-seeking, mental rumination, physical compulsions, or self-punishment. So, when we do that, our brain then goes, “Oh, they’re interpreting this as a danger. They’re responding to it as a danger. So, next time I have that thought or that situation, I’m going to send all the anxiety again.” And so, when it comes out again, if you respond with avoidance and reassurance-seeking and mental rumination and physical compulsions and self-punishment, you’re now stuck in a cycle where we reinforce the fear, the perceived danger.
So, here is again where I’m going to offer to you, we have some options of intervening into this cycle. We talk about this in ERP School, the online course for OCD. We talk about it in overcoming anxiety and panic in our course for anxiety and panic on breaking the cycle by reducing our reaction to this stressful event or this brain danger alert. And when we do that, we can actually reverse that alteration in the brain. We have scientific proof of this, so I’m so excited that we get to do this together. It’s not like we end the episode by going, “Yeah, this is the problem and there’s no solution.” There’s multiple solutions. And it’s about really, again, intervening at the reaction we have to that anxiety.
If you have a therapist, I want you to be talking with them about how you can intervene and break the cycle. If you don’t have a therapist, consider going to CBTschool.com and looking at some of the courses that we have that may help you understand this process and help you intervene where and when you’re ready. Those courses are self-led. They’re not therapy, but they may help you look at the cycle and see where you’re getting stuck.
And so, that is where I’m going to leave you guys, which is with so much hope that, number one, we know what causes anxiety. We know very clearly, it’s not your fault. And then we can all come together and work at reducing the cycle that happens and changing our brain. It’s so cool. So, so cool.
Thank you, guys, so much for being here with me. That was a hefty episode, but I hope you found it helpful. I’m so happy to get through that. Actually, I feel like that was super productive. And for me even, it’s like, oh, it’s so good to know that we can do so much about this.
So, as you guys know, I’m always going to say it’s a beautiful day to do hard things. Go and do some hard things today. They could be small hard things, big hard things, it doesn’t matter. Just baby steps lead to medium size steps, which lead to life-changing steps.
Alright, my loves, have a wonderful day. I will see you next week. Please do go and leave a review. It should take you no more than a couple of minutes and it will help me so much. Thank you so much.